In his rejection of the WSA chalking compromise, President Bennet argues that other forms of communication can adequately “protect free expression and … enhance Wesleyan’s civility.” Since chalkings tended to be one-sided and uncivil, banning them would foster more responsible dialogue, or so his reasoning goes. This logic exemplifies one of the fundamental contradictions behind the chalking ban: if the university is actually prepared to tolerate other forms of communication “without limiting their content,” then anyone who wanted to chalk something obscene or threatening could merely put up a sign with the exact same content. On the other hand, if the university is given discretion to tear down any sign that they don’t approve of, then freedom of expression is an illusion. In other words, the chalking ban does not enhance civility, it only bans chalk.
Bennet offers two justifications for banning an entire method of communication. His first justification is that an absolute ban is preferable to a speech code (which would regulate the content of what could be chalked). Although a speech code would also be undesirable, this only proves that Bennet did not choose the worst option – it doesn’t prove that a ban was right. It’s as if President Bush had said, “Yes, I decided to cut taxes for the rich, but the administration felt it was preferable to systematically executing the poor.”
Bennet’s second justification is that the anonymous nature of chalking promotes incivility. Even with the ban, however, anyone who is dead-set on spreading hatred can still go out at night and anonymously chalk whatever they want – it is all the other voices on campus that end up being silenced. Additionally, anonymous communication is an important tool for marginalized groups. The chalking ban silences any voices that are too threatened to include their identity as part of their message. Unfortunately, it is exactly these groups that stand to gain the most by sharing their message with the rest of the campus.
Chalking offers unique benefits that other forms of communication cannot provide. This past year has demonstrated how poorly signs substitute for chalk. Signs cover each other up, waste tons of paper, are hard to remove, leave soggy bits of tape and paper all over campus after it rains, and bracket creativity into 8.5 by 11 inch margins. Most importantly, signs cannot be a tool for dialogue. If someone reads a message they disagree with, it is much easier to write a response in chalk then it is to run back to one’s room, type out a sign, run to a copying machine, and then tape copies of the sign all over campus.
Finally, it is important to notice what Bennet’s rejection does not include. Nowhere does he refute the effectiveness of the WSA proposal in preventing incivility towards specific individuals. Under the compromise, anyone who is identified by name in a chalking can file with the university to have their name erased. This ensures that threatening messages will be less of a problem than they were in the past.